A Native American Honors His Son with a Pow Wow

Sep 23, 2015

Ralph Moisa II in the regalia he'll wear at the White Eagle Pow Wow
Credit Rob Dillard, Iowa Public Radio

The 16th Annual White Eagle Pow Wow will be staged this weekend on land just south of Interstate 80 near Waukee. The man behind the event calls it the only multicultural Pow Wow in the world.


On a football Saturday afternoon in a suburban West Des Moines neighborhood of single family homes, the air is filled with incongruous music.


It’s coming from a backyard where a red teepee filled with pelts and artifacts stands tall, and a man dressed in complete Native-American regalia, including loin cloth, leggings and headdress, entertains an intimate group of about 20.


“My name is Ine Yabia Waci Witasa Ate na Tankasila," he announces. "But you can call me Ralph.”


That would be Ralph Moisa II, a member of the Yacqui tribe of the American southwest and Mexico, and the founder of the White Eagle Pow Wow, an annual gathering since 2000.  He decided to mount the ever-growing festival in Waukee after the death of his son, Ralph Moisa III, also known as White Eagle. He died at the age of 19 while trying to rescue a red tail hawk caught in a power line.


“He thought he could do it, I guess" his father says. "He climbed up the pole to try to free the hawk, the hawk got startled and spread its wings and the electrical current went through them both.”


In his short life, Moisa says, young Ralph had been witness to racial profiling and hateful acts of intolerance. 


“My son grew up seeing these little prejudices that were happening around us," he says. "And he was trying to go into schools and preschools talking to the children trying to explain to them that we really aren’t that different.”


So after his death, his father, mother, sister and brother agreed the best way to honor the teenager’s memory would be by staging a multicultural Pow Wow. It would be a place where people from all races and ethnicities could come together to dance, sing and tell stories.


“It’s a gathering to bring smiles and laughter, to bring down walls of misunderstanding so we can learn we have a great strength in our diversity,” Moisa says.


Moisa says the Pow Wow is no place for disagreements over politics or religion. Instead, he says, it’s a celebration of heritage and tradition, whether that history took place in Europe, Asia, Africa or the Americas. He says it was his son’s vision to bring people together in peace.


“To understand a little bit about their neighbors and in so doing learn a little bit about themselves," Moisa says. "That’s our whole goal. That was his goal and his dream. We hope we’ve accomplished some of what he was hoping for.”


At young Ralph’s funeral, the family placed the hawk he had so wanted to save on his chest, its wings spread in an embrace. Hundreds of complete strangers, his father remembers, attended the funeral.